Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Back to religious ethics

Oh how I love "Exploring Religious Ethics"! I like most of the classes I teach a lot, but I dare say this is my greatest love - perhaps I should teach it more than once every two years. This iteration of it is shaping up very nicely, after a rocky start: it was scheduled for 8am, garnered the predictably miniscule enrollment, but then was moved to the quirky but pleasing 3:50-5:30 slot. Even better, we're in one of the original Lang classrooms on the 2nd floor of 65 West 11th Street, overlooking the courtyard. Night falls during class now, but over the course of the next months we'll feel Spring stretching out the days. And we're a perfect sized group - we all fit around a big table (actually cluster of tables).

At the first session on Monday I again showed the first of Kieslowski's "Dekalog" movies, heavy stuff to watch, especially with people you don't know yet, but it established the seriousness of the class. It resonates with some of the larger questions of the class I introduced - the relation of ethics and religion, the limits of the moral community, etc. - and our brief discussion was good. Then I suggested one could see it as a Buddhist movie, too, only to find that nobody in the class had any background in Buddhism. They hadn't even heard of the Four Noble Truths! And so a film about the first commandment led to a discussion about the first noble truth, the truth of dukkha.

Today we discussed Susan Wolf's now classic essay "Moral Saints" (it's more than 30 years old and we're still reading it). Wolf thinks our moral theories commit us to ideals of moral behavior we don't, in fact, think ideal. Someone "whose every act is as morally good as possible" would probably be no fun to be around: saccharine, dull to the pleasures of art and taste, and lacking in a rich inner life. It's fine that there are a few Mother Teresas out there, but we want our friends and family to be more complicated and interesting. Wolf's challenge: can we talk about moral issues in a way more adequate to common sense understandings of the value of rich, complicated lives and pleasures?

The article explicitly raises many important questions, central among them whether a good life is about more than being "good," whether there are such things as "non-moral" virtues and values, and how to think about supererogatory good and its role in the lives of individuals and communities. But the incuriosity about religious lives that it shares with most secular moral philosophy also make it a great start for our course - the more conspicuous for Wolf's appropriation of the category of "saints" without so much as a glance at religious traditions of sainthood. Saints are our topic for the first chunk of the class, which takes in many disciplines and classic as well as contemporary cases:

• Susan Wolf's "Moral Saints"
• William James's "The Value of Saintliness" from The Varieties of Religious Experience
• Cardinal José Saraiva Martins' “The Lives of the Saints Show the World ‘the Divine in the Human, the Eternal in Time'"
• The case for (and against) canonizing Dorothy Day
• Jataka Tales, including the perfect generosity of King Vesantara
• Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling

The readings lean heavily on the Christian side of our course, but that will be tempered by the more general questions from Wolf and James, and balanced out in the next segment of the course, which focuses on Buddhist questions and traditions.

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